ONE: Can you truly crown a champion without Kyle Busch in the Chase?
Kyle Busch has been the subject of criticism, and often times hatred, amongst race fans everywhere who would love nothing more than to see a Chase-less Busch. But while every dodged interview and eccentric victory celebration makes NASCAR’s most diehard fans’ blood boil, there is no denying that the man can wheel a stock car and is – in most people’s opinions – a top 10 talent in the sport. That’s why when I polled a number of NASCAR fans this weekend, I was not surprised when many said that you can’t have a playoff without one of the sport’s biggest stars.
But while I agree that the Chase will be somewhat strange without the No. 18 going for the Cup, the truth is the team doesn’t deserve to be there. Along with his four wins, Busch has just as many finishes of 30th or worse, a glaring sign of the roller coaster season that’s plagued him throughout 2009. Twice, he had a four-race stretch without a top 10 finish, and when he needed them the most, he mustered only three in the final nine races – in fact, he has just five top 10s since May. Sure, we may see Kyle Busch in Victory Lane a lot, but it takes consistency to win a championship, and the No. 18 team didn’t even have the consistency to make the Chase.
TWO: Is Mark Martin a legitimate contender for the title?
In one word: YES. Mark Martin and crew chief Alan Gustafson have proved to be a dynamic duo this season, recovering from a four-race stretch to start the season that resulted in the team sitting 34th in points to leading the series in wins and holding the points lead heading into the Chase opener. Always the bridesmaid, the big question is whether or not Martin will have luck on his side over the final 10 races to step up to that championship altar. In the meantime, one thing is certain: he has the experience, he has the talent, and he has the equipment to make him capable of winning his first Sprint Cup. Consistency plagued the No. 5 team early on, but with six top 10s in his final eight races Martin is riding a wave of momentum that he hopes will carry him all the way to the championship stage in Miami.
THREE: Can anyone beat Jimmie Johnson?
To dethrone the three-time defending champ, teams are going to need a flawless final 10 races. With a 12-car Chase field, drivers often times can not afford a DNF – and 10th place finishes often mean you’re losing ground in the standings. Don’t be fooled by a rough-and-tumble August that saw him go without a top 5 finish; it’s going to take wins, top 5s, consistency, and a little bit of luck to beat Jimmie Johnson. It’s obvious that the No. 48 team has this whole playoff thing figured out, and what’s changed since last season? Nothing. The tracks are the same, the No. 48 team is the same, and the format is the same. Don’t be surprised if Johnson is hoisting the trophy again in Miami…
FOUR: Who’s the hottest driver heading into the final ten races?
If you’re a firm believer in momentum, drop some money down on the No. 11 team in the Chase. Hamlin has been red hot over the past two months, with ten top 10s in the last last 12 races, including six consecutive. A popular sleeper pick weeks ago, Hamlin is now a legitimate championship threat who can only benefit by Kyle Busch’s failure to make the Chase. By being the lone Gibbs car in the 10-race playoff, the No. 11 will receive all of the attention as Joe Gibbs goes for another title.
FIVE: Can a winless driver win the championship?
There are four drivers in the Chase this season that were winless in the regular season (Edwards, Newman, Montoya, Biffle), but if any want to win the championship, it’s going to have to take wins in the final ten races to do so. The Chase field is always so competitive that simple top 10 finishes aren’t good enough; in fact, no one has gone winless in the regular season and gone on to win the Chase playoff. As for the spoilers, sure, you’ll get guys like Kyle Busch that might steal a win here or there… but the majority of the final ten races will be won by Chase contenders. So if these four drivers don’t find Victory Lane at least once in the final ten races, they definitely won’t win the championship… and remember, they’re already at a disadvantage to begin with.
Five Notes to Ponder
So, who wins the title?: It’s going to be hard to go against Johnson, and Martin is the popular pick, but I’m going out on a slight limb and going with Denny Hamlin.
Edwards impressive: Was anybody else amazed at how Carl Edwards came from the back to win Friday’s Nationwide race with a broken foot?
Bayne quite a talent: It seems like every time Trevor Bayne is in a Nationwide race, he qualifies and races towards the front. His 7th place run Friday was another strong run for one of the sport’s brighter prospects.
The streak is snapped: Regan Smith’s streak of finishing 53 consecutive races came to an end this weekend. It may not be the record, but it is the sign of a great young driver when he doesn’t tear up his equipment. Furniture Row is lucky to have him as they continue their development as a team for 2010.
Petty-Yates merger: Forget all of the whole “how will the team run” talk for a second. I know it’s a result of the economy, but because of constant mergers like this, the lack of team identity, driver identity, and sponsor identity is one of the main reasons the sport is struggling right now.
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